Ice Gallery : Steve Garvey Ice Gallery

Steve Garvey Ice Gallery

There is no doubt that Steve Garvey has left an indelible mark on the local Alaska climbing scene. His rock and ice routes are common and prolific. When you read about Steve you quickly learn that he was a man of action. When Blue Ice and Black Gold was released by the late Dr. Embick, Garvey provided an interview after scratching up Sans Ami, a revolutionary new mixed climb in Keystone Canyon. His bold style was clear and his mindset for hard ascents was very apparent. Jim Sweeney captured that moment in an essay.  His article provides a perspective of what Garvey was like on the sharp end.

Garvey climbed with many others in and around Alaska that got to know him well. For Garvey's Ice Gallery, we thought it would be good to include some recent thoughts in personal bios on Garvey. Roger Pollard gives us his perspective of what the antics were like when climbing Hands Across the Water with Garvey. Eddie Phay provides insight into the man and more on his personality. And, Paul Wharton circles us back to the Garvey epics of setting a first ascent on Gingus.

Unfortunately, Garvey was killed in a climbing accident and left the world suddenly. We have brought together some of those parting thoughts from others that knew him well. His style of the day was featured in a 2000 Oct/Nov article in Rock & Ice magazine.

And, we leave you with more insight that was captured in the obituaries released at the time of his death. It is clear that Garvey had a huge impact on so many others. Garvey deserves respect for helping to change the face of climbing in Alaska.

Below, is a list of Garvey's first ascents listed on the guide.

Hole in the Wall

Hicks Creek

Turnagain Arm

Portage River

Tunnel Section


Garvey making his way up a route near Chitina.  Photo: Roger Pollard.Garvey beginning one of the many epics to climb Hands Across the Water.  Photo: Roger Pollard.Garvey picking his way up High Tide near Homer.  Photo: Roger Pollard.
A classic shot of Garvey going after thinner conditions on Roadside Attraction. Photo: Roger Pollard.Garvey showing no fear hanging on to the Tentacle. Photo: Roger Pollard.Garvey cragging on Turnagain Arm. Photo: Eddie Phay.
Eddie Phay enjoying a hard days work with Garvey. Photo: Eddie Phay.Getting ready for the paddle to Hands Across the Water. Photo: Roger Pollard.
Garvey making the most of thinner conditions on Lucky Man, Portage. Photo: Roger Pollard.Garvey on Skin Game. Photo: Tom Evans.Garvey picking his way up Slim Jim on Turnagain Arm. Photo: Tom Evans.

By Roger Pollard:

The white caps were barely visible on Portage Lake in the fading late October light. Mike Tumey and I stood at the belay ledge part way up the 700’ ice ribbon known nowadays to climbers as Hands Across the Water. Below, our aluminum canoe was tied off to a tiny alder growing from a crack and was pounding against the rock wall like a clock ticking away the time with its gong-like sound. Above, Garvey was climbing with his typical lightning speed, topping over the headwall a couple hundred feet above.

Forgiveness is a funny thing; its application can untangle emotional conflicts within minutes, heal angry souls and soothe one’s state of mind. It can be genuine or an easy way out. Climbing with Steve Garvey meant there was no easy way out; I wasn’t about to forgive him for getting me into this one. But then again, when you went climbing with Garvey you knew the script.

The seeds of our journey were planted the day before from a warm Nissan pickup truck in the parking lot of the Portage Visitor Center. The weather had been unusually clear and cold, creating conditions that formed a distinct silver 700-foot ribbon of ice across the lake. “We have got to do that”, Garvey exclaimed. “Tumey has a canoe, let’s see if he wants to go.” We had hoped to bag a first ascent but later learned that Charlie Sassara and Dave McGivern had climbed it in 1983.

As a naive subject of the great Garvey I tagged along assuming that I was in experienced hands. I had met Steve Garvey a year prior while I was using a fixed top rope while learning how to ice climb near the Seward Highway. The year was 1987. Garvey had pulled up in his iconic full-sized Ford Bronco and soon sized me up as a potential belay slave - one of the many stray ice dogs he would pick up on the roadside over the years.

The ensuing hours would read like text out of the Garvey playbook. Move and move fast, get down before darkness set in. Anyone who climbed with Steve knew his peeves and violating the rules resulted in a Boston-accented tongue-in-cheek scolding only Garvey could deliver. As we topped out we realized a storm was moving in. Light snow was blowing and below and the icebergs in the lake were blown hundreds of feet from their original position downwind and the water went from glass to ominous choppy water.

At the bottom of the first rappel it happened. When using twin 300 ft ropes it is imperative to never cross the ropes on the rappel. Doing so will guarantee they will get hung up due to the friction. Violate this ice law with Garvey and you paid the price, “If I wanted to be a Brownie mother I would have been a Brownie mother!” Garvey would shout in an irritated scowl, “you better not make me late for trick or treat!!” Within seconds he clipped into his belay device and disappeared, rope soloing to fix the problem. The sound of his lecturing carried away as he ascended around the corner in the wind and blowing snow. His outbursts were drawn out like a professional actor in an act replayed time and again, a prerequisite for epic stories he lived time and again.

With astonishing speed he solved the problem once again as he did on numerous occasions I climbed with him. After another rappel we arrive at a tiny ledge and nervously boarded the bobbing canoe next to the glacier carved rock wall. After making crux moves to board we realized the canoe was now over laden with drenched ropes and soaked gear leaving little freeboard with the gunwales only a few inches above the water level. The sun had set as growing winds and whisping snow funneled through Portage Pass in search of lower pressure in Turnagain Arm.

In the distance, the lights of the Portage Visitor’s Center parking lot were barely visible as a faint silver glow. Mike took up the Captain position at the rear of the boat and Garvey the point position as lead dog barking orders “hard left!” as we skirted icebergs. Meanwhile, I sat helplessly lodged midship between frozen packs and ropes. It was now pitch black.

Viewed from the parking lot, Hands Across the Water lures its victims as it sits perched against a glacial carved wall across flat grey Portage Lake creating the illusion that the climb is much closer than its true distance of approximately a mile and a half. The gravity of our situation now seemed darker than the sky as we approached the middle of the lake. Peppered with icebergs of all sizes and 10 degree F air temperature, capsizing during our dark and windy voyage now seemed like a real possibility.

In the earlier days before global warming Portage Glacier had not receded to its current location and Portage Lake was strewn with hundreds of floating icebergs ranging from fist sized to house sized. Ice would calve off the glacier to the south and be blown north by the prevailing winds until they reached the north end of the lake where they provided a stunning view for tourists as viewed from the parking lot. The closer we got to the shore the more ice we encountered. Then, within a couple hundred feet offshore, the alarm was sounded “full speed ahead!” Fueled by survival adrenaline and with the power of an Olympic crew team Garvey and Tumey put the pedal to the metal rocketing the canoe toward the shoreline ramming it at full speed on the shore its metal hull sliding to a stop and rolling on its side, faces against the ground. Then all was quiet for a moment as we lay against the glacier polished rocks. Above, snowflakes illuminated by the parking lot lighting, danced against the blackness of the sky. Seconds later all three of us let out a burst of laughter knowing we had survived yet another Garvey epic!

While Garvey was a master of climbing epics his antics were not confined to the climb. Steve Murphy, another of Garvey’s stray ice dogs, once recalled an emblematic incident when Garvey had made plans climb with a friend at Scales, a local meet-up spot that has a small curtain of ice. That friend never showed up and after running up and down the climb solo several times Garvey got into his Bronco and drove with his crampons still attached to his boots and headed to Steve Murphy’s house. Answering the doorbell, Murphy found Garvey wielding harness replete with axes “Lets go climbing!”.

Murphy replied that he was in bed and wasn’t sure if his wife, who was still in bed, had anything planned. With that Garvey stormed past, crampons still on, ice axes dangling from his holsters and beelined it across the carpeted floor into the bedroom where Steve’s a startled wife sat up shielded by the covers, “Can Steve go climbing today?” he asked, though it wasn’t exactly a question. After gaining her approval Garvey sauntered out, “I’ll see you at Scales” he said “and don’t be late, the train waits for no man.”

Steve Garvey was a force of nature and character the like of which that I am sure I will never meet again. Despite his amazing skills and reputation he was one of the least pretentious and most genuine people you would ever meet with an energy that was unstoppable. His sense of humor often left you laughing in tears. As for his climbing? In my view, Steve Garvey was one of the top ice climbers in North America. His modest and provincial nature never resulted in the notoriety he deserved. He was, without question, one of the most unique characters and best climbers to have ever stepped on Alaska soil. To those who never met Steve I can only say you would have loved him like his stray ice dogs. We can still hear him yelling, “get out there and address that pillar!”

By Eddie Phay:

"Chump monkey! You'd be the happiest climber on the planet, on the shitiest piece of California rock." And once again, Steve was ever so spot on when he proclaimed that way back then, during the days of foot fangs and hummingbirds! Here I am a year older than at the time of Steve's death, at the crusty ripe age of 41, living month 9 in a van just outside of Bishop California. Admiring my swollen toes and winter time Teva tan lines. I'm grinning like a Cheshire cat, all from the copious amounts of sport climbing in the Owens River Gorge. Mr. Garvey had a way of looking into my future, well before I had any inclination of it. Akin to a Zen Roshi whipping together moments, so to burn these phrases into my consciousness for my later fruitions.

Another favorite one of his was, "On some days, it’s okay not to climb". Goes without saying, I find myself using this one often. And also, Steve's family meant everything to him! I recall another moment when I was gawking over this stunning home picture of him on an early ascent of Wowie Zowie in Valdez. Walking up the stairs behind me, he turned around and simply said "Just pictures." Truly he was a climbing fanatic, but as a family man he had found something much better for himself. In his later years you could tell he had found some balance. His peers often asked him about this. Steve was also a religious man, but certainly not a bible thumper. He would patiently remind me, in his East coast way, to not to say the lords name in vain. His reasoning was virtue. He certainly had his own religious rhythm that found his church in nature, a place to find health and to be at peace. This is where Steve really made a lifelong impression on me and I like to believe others too.

Time would eventually find Steve picking me up off my face and helping me stand sure footed again. In 1995, I had just lost my father to cancer and little did I know, just months later, I would properly be relieved of a seven year chaotic relationship. I was so young and massively crushed by these events. It was all so new to me; people close to me tragically and suddenly moving on for one reason or another. Steve made it a point during this time to actively spend time with me. To see me through, continue breathing, and climbing. He made it a point that summer in 1995 to make sure I climbed with him as much as he could tolerate me, and he did a lot of that. He had a sure grip on forgiveness and compassion.

Being so young at the time I had all sorts of issues, as did many of the other neophytes I'd see group around him in his later years. He had this way of taking young climbers with shaky foundations and bringing them to realize what he saw in them. It was then their duty to reach that potential for themselves. Carl Tobin said something one day about Steve that really brought this to life, something along the lines of that Steve could make a great route out of seemingly nothing. Sometime after 1995 Carl would return to Alaska and the two of us would help Steve piece together a fantastic new route in Middle Glacier Canyon, aptly named "Big Sky". And once again, those combined words have stuck with me ever since. Those two words ring so true to me. I've used them again and again, in fact just recently to name an ice route in Nabesna. I remember once with Steve at Dino Head, we were Rasta high like there was no tomorrow. We had found that we could fly if we’d hang over the guard cabling there by our waists, so that all our eyes could see was the Turnagain Arm. We'd stretch our arms out and pretend we were flying with the ravens overhead. For a second then I could swear Steve and I knew how to fly; in a cloud of smoke, we fell down into the goat shit, laughing our asses off. To this day I rarely laugh that hard with others. I'd love to have seen Steve paraglide with me! I'd love for Steve to feel the freedom of foot launch free flight!

Here in Bishop, on the perfect Sierra Granite, I see how Steve's footwork has influenced me. He had impeccable foot work! I believe what really honed it outside of rock climbing was mixed rock and ice climbing. He had such skill in placing his feet while wearing crampons, truly inspiring to witness. I've found nirvana dancing my way up routes, I owe that to him! It's sheer pleasure seeing how Steve has shaped my climbing from those early days. For instance I constantly check my knot on route when things are getting a little hairy. Just to instill some confidence. He did that often as well and I'm sure I picked it up from him. It's saved my life more than a couple times. As has placing stopper knots on rappel lines; I wish my friends would have listened. Or using two pieces to tie into an anchor, even on easy ground! He coined the term "safety check" for me. It's tragic how a cut rope ended his life here. His death shook the climbing community then, it was the definition of tragic. In many respects, a generation of climbing ended with Steve's death that day.

Steve contributed so much to rock and ice climbing here in Alaska. He endured navy seal amounts of suffering in the backcountry. I find one of his most notable ascents to be Sans Ame in Valdez. This is grade WI6 M8 in 1987! Well before Jeff Lowe's Octopussy in Vail Colorado. Again, his footwork was impeccable, as was his mindfulness at the tip of his ice picks. This route was before it's time, and to this day unsung. Another test piece is Eating Crow in the Tunnel Section. Shit, the list goes on...

Yup, to many Steve was a Kung Fu master of sorts. The year after Steve was killed I returned to Middle Glacier canyon for a memorial climb. I was shocked at what we found. The route that Steve was killed on had completely fallen down, as in some act of the gods or something. Stones with bolts were lying about a massive field of debris. One could sense the power it took to dispatch that piece of Earth. I have one of those bolted stones, a subtle reminder that there's more to life than climbing.

By Paul Wharton:

I first met Steve Garvey when he came to visit a classmate of mine in college. Both were from south Weymouth, a suburb of Boston, and both shared the same sharp accent distinctive of their hometown. A couple years later I had moved to Homer and I knew Garvey was in the state but didn't have any way to contact him (this way before Facebook or even cell phones). On my way to town one day I stopped at windy point where there used to be a pretty good 5.10 toprope problem just on the far side of the tracks (the railroad has since blasted the climb). On my way down to the climb I heard a sharp voice in that distinctive south Weymouth accent warning me of the train. That was Garvey alright looking out for his fellow man. I reintroduced myself and we made arrangements to climb together in the future.

A year or so later I made arrangements to climb with Steve in Portage. I showed up bright eyed at some ungodly hour on his doorstep at his house in Girdwood. It must have been 7am or so. Steve was massively hungover and had only gone to bed an hour or two previously. I plied him with aspirin, water and coffee and an hour or so later we made it out the door. We went down to middle glacier valley in portage. The objective for the day was a sinister looking gash high on the righthand side with a thin discontinuous ribbon of white and grayish ice at the back -- Genghis, unnamed and unclimbed at that point.

Garvey led. The crux was a rock overhang about 2/3 rds the way up. From the lip a free hanging icicle dangled. Below a bare rock corner led to the overhang. I belayed on top of a large boulder just to right of the base of the gulley. Garvey approached the overhang and did a few hook moves while bridging on the walls of the rock corner and messed around looking for some pro. The only thing he could get in was a warthog hammered 1/2 way in behind a small flake. He tested it with his hand a little and then reached with his ice hammer to hook the ice tongue above. The next thing I heard was "Falling". I grabbed the rope and received a terrific blow on my forehead. Garvey had dropped his ice hammer in the fall and it struck me flush on the head collapsing my cheap plastic climbing helmet. I was only a broken tooth the worse for wear, but how was Garvey? Garvey it proved was fine and quite vocal! A few choice words and voluble thanks to me for catching him on the rope. (just doing my job) The warthog was bent in half but still held behind the flake. Steve reestablished himself in the gulley and after a brief rest (and using the 3rd tool he always carried) ascended once more to the lip of the overhang, caressing the warthog for luck. This time he smoothly pulled the overhang with delicate pick placements and precise footwork. He made a belay on the ice slope just above the crux. Now it was my turn! With heart firmly in mouth I started up the gulley. I marveled at the small flake which still held the warthog bent double, then addressed the overhang. Using Garvey's pick placements and having carefully watched Steve, I am proud to say I climbed the crux without falling. I was completely spent at the belay and Steve climbed the remaining ice slope to alders for the rappel. Genghis, -VI, was in the books!

Climbing with Steve was always a blast. You knew it was going to be hard, probably epic, with an element of danger and very rewarding. Steve was also invariably good company, always upbeat and positive no matter what was going on in his personal life. He was also very considerate, usually bringing some special food or piece of equipment on our trips. At the belay he'd make a special effort to make sure you were as comfortable as possible, cutting a step so you didn't have to front point or arranging the rope so you had room to maneuver. He was very demanding as a climbing partner and was meticulous about every phase of preparation. We sewed our own slings using special thread and an "X" bar tack pattern that Steve thought was the best. (No need to do that now with all the good gear on the market). Each quick draw was threaded the same way to allow easy extension. Well before the trip the file was broken out and each crampon point and ice pick given a good sharpening. The wrist loops on each tool were inspected and adjusted for length. At the base of the pitch the rack was gone over thoroughly. Every essential piece was put in its proper place and all non-essential gear left at the belay. Every knot was tied carefully with safety knots and double checked. We climbed using swami belts and leg loops. Again before each climb the swami was tightened, the knot seated and checked and checked again. Each rappel was carefully constructed and the ropes tested so that they would pull freely. The proper rope to pull was identified and stated out loud and repeated back before the rappel was begun. When the ropes were pulled they were then flaked loose into the bottom of the rucksack. Again attention being paid to do this correctly so there would be no tangles when feeding the rope out.

Steve was also meticulous about cleaning and drying the gear at the end of the day. I'd be happy leaving it all in frozen pile to sort out in the morning. But with Steve the ropes were hung to dry, the rack sorted and gloves and gear hung up and everything made ready for the next day's climb. I think this attention to detail, even fussiness, cleared Steve's mind so he could concentrate solely on the climbing.

At the start of the pitch Steve was usually a little antsy, bitching about some small thing or another. But once on the ice (or rock) Steve was 100% focused on the problem. Woe betide the belayer that did not give Steve enough rope. Any hang up in rope work brought an almost instant rebuke. Followed at the top of the pitch by a well found joke or pithy comment. For those following his lead Steve didn't always provide the tightest top rope - wanting his partner to get the full enjoyment of the climb. Indeed any request for "up rope" usually brought a foot or two of extra slack. So you just had to man up and climb. Steve probably didn't have the ideal build for extreme climbing. He was about 5'10" solidly built and in reasonably good shape. He was tenacious and had good stamina. Steve's climbing style was direct and forceful with plenty of good technique. He was a bold climber, particularly on ice, with many a hard, runout FA to his credit. I miss him dearly.